Keeping Score

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One of my favorite lessons of the AP Biology year is my lesson on the ethical implications of biotechnology. Sequence-wise, I do this immediately after students learn about the tools, techniques, and applications of biotech. The lesson has several parts, but the one I'll speak to below involves having students move to different sides of the room if they agree or disagree with a series of statements about possible uses of biotech. Here are this year’s totals (the tally after each statement indicates the number of students who agree vs. the number who disagree with the particular statement):

  • Humans should be allowed to genetically engineer other species.17 - 2
  • Humans should be allowed to genetically engineer other humans without their consent. 0 - 19
  • Humans should be allowed to genetically engineer themselves (or elect to be genetically engineered by someone else). 18 - 1
  • Genetically modified food should be labeled. 18 - 1
  • Insurance companies should be able to use my DNA sequences to determine the cost of my insurance. 2 - 17
  • Companies should be allowed to patent genes that they discover. 7 - 12
  • Companies should be allowed to patent genetic constructs that they create (ex. artificial combinations of existing genes).17 - 2
  • Research that involves the engineering of human organs (outside of humans entirely)should be allowed.19 - 0
  • Stem-cell research that is focused on improving human health, and involves the creation of embryos that will not be brought to term should be allowed 18 - 1
  • Humans should be able to select the gender of their child. 4 - 15
  • Humans should be able to select traits other than gender in their child. 4 - 15
  • Humans should be able to reproductively clone themselves. 2 - 17

I always find this part of this lesson to be a fascinating glimpse at how the deepest thinkers of each year’s senior class think about these issues. It’s also interesting to see how reflective they are of the ethics of their culture, and their geography. Notice, for instance, how much of a difference consent makes in the decision-making of the group, or how “liberal” (for want of a better term) they feel about Stem-cell research. I’d love to run this lesson in parallel at different locations throughout the country and compare the results (though I bet the differences would be less pronounced than one might think).

The lesson is cool for a couple of other reasons. Students always have a hard time making a choice for the prompts. A good number of them want to stand somewhere in the middle (which is, I think, the perfect response, even if I don’t allow it for the purpose of the activity). And I think it’s really hard, even in this friendly setting, to stand alone on one side when everyone else is on the other. I also solicit volunteers to explain why they have decided to stand where they are (I don’t allow rebuttal or challenge from other students for this), and I think it’s really helpful for students to hear that people who feel differently from them have reasons for their feelings.

All in all, it’s a remarkably rich little lesson for my classes, even though it’s so “simple” to pull off, which is why I think I enjoy it so much. I’d love to know about your experiences if you do something similar in your own class.